Crime rate declines

By Eef Harmsen

In Ottawa, a young British engineer is gunned down by young offenders. An elderly Montreal couple is clubbed to death by three young teenagers. In Victoria, a girl is beaten to death by her schoolmates. All these horrible stories fuel public opinion that youth crime is on the rise, getting more violent, and that the federal Young Offenders Act is too lenient.However, is this really so? Across Canada, the overall crime rate is declining and so is the youth crime rate.

Between 1991-97, the crime rate for youngpeople dropped by 23 per cent from 643 to 495 incidents per 10,000 youth.

In 1997, 82 per cent of youth charges were for nonviolent crime like theft, drug possession and contempt of court orders, although the violent youth crime rate in 1998/99 was up two per cent from 1992/93. Half of all violent youth crime cases involve minor assaults. Major assaults such as aggravated assault and robbery increased by about 30 per cent over the last seven years, while major decreases were reported for sexual offenses (39 per cent), dangerous use of weapons (25 per cent), possession of weapons (24 per cent) and sexual assault (21 per cent). Murder, manslaughter and attempted murder represented less than one per cent of all violent crime cases heard in youth courts.

The justice system treats youth more harshly than adults, according to the 13th report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, released in 1997. There are about 3.5 times more adults charged than youths for all offenses, while for violent crimes the adult/youth ratio is more than five times greater. Despite this ratio, there are more youth incarcerated than adults. In 1992, the rate of detention for adults in Canada was 151 per 100,000 adults whereas 229 per 100,000 youth were incarcerated. This means that youth will be jailed four times more frequently than adults!

Also the House of Commons Standing Committee noted that the rate of youth incarceration in Canada is twice that of the United States and 15 times higher than in

Australia, New Zealand and many European countries. The percentage of young offenders diverted from the criminal justice system here is less than in the U.S. In 1997, only 25 per cent of young offenders in Canada were dealt with through processes outside the formal justice system, compared to the U.S. (53 per cent), Great Britain (57 per cent) and New Zealand (61 per cent).

The majority of all youth crimes are caused by only a small group of repeat offenders. These adolescents frequently have a long history of aggressive, disruptive, antisocial behavior, which started early in childhood. Research from Richard Tremblay of the Université de Montréal shows that it is possible to identify these children early. And there are programs which significantly reduce their risk of future delinquency. These social intervention programs are expensive, but research indicates that, in the long-term, they are highly cost-effective.

In contrast, punishing high-risk youth who have little stake in their school or community does not discourage reoffending behaviour and is expensive as well. Incarceration of a child or adolescents costs $250 a day.

Reproduced from: Families & Health, September 2000, Volume 13.